Turkey and stuffing aren’t dishes native to Congo. • You won’t find marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes on tables in Iran. • Thanksgiving and all its yummy trimmings are uniquely American, but the idea of celebrating with food — especially recipes lovingly handed down from generation to generation — is something to which every culture can relate. • It’s also the seed growing a new program aimed at helping immigrant and refugee women become self-sufficient, all while cooking the foods their mothers and grandmothers taught them to make.
Called Dishes & Stories, the culinary venture is Priscilla Mendenhall’s brainchild. The lifelong foodie who’s worked with refugees and immigrants for decades calls it “empowerment behind a stove.”
“Really, Dishes & Stories is my dream to create a women-led and -run business that will make enough money to pay a good salary,” says Mendenhall, who’s poured about $50,000 of her own and her family’s money, along with some serious sweat equity, into the project.
She’s studied similar programs across the country that work with disadvantaged populations to piece together a culinary social enterprise that’s as much about self-sufficiency as sustenance.
“Food is so important — so many have been food deprived,” says Barbara Eiswerth, founder and director of Iskashitaa, a nonprofit that works with refugees and a partner in Dishes & Stories.
The program’s already had a few catering gigs and its business plan calls for adding a food truck and eventually opening a restaurant. First on the to-do list, though, is to nail down commercial kitchen space for catering jobs.
With a $10,000 grant from the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, Dishes & Stories recently launched a culinary training program. Its kickoff event was a cooking retreat that brought together almost a dozen women from far-flung countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan — all of them now calling Tucson home.
Gathered around a long island in the kitchen of Rincon United Church of Christ, 122 N. Craycroft Road, the women learned about sanitary practices and watched as Kelzi Bartholomaei — the chef/owner of Mother Hubbard’s Cafe who herself learned traditional Mexican dishes from her grandmother — demonstrated the proper way to slice onions, tomatoes and garlic.
Then, it was time to cook.
Beneath the hum of industrial-sized refrigerators, the thump of knives hitting plastic cutting boards and occasional purred French phrases, the women jockeyed for space at the eight-burner stove.
Heaps of ingredients piled up in the center of the kitchen island: lentils, tortillas, fresh herbs, kale, white mushrooms and lots of onions.
Adut Ruai, 26 and a single mother who moved from Sudan 10 years ago, is fresh off a double overnight shift as a caregiver at a group home. She’s making sambusa, a savory, meat-filled pastry. It’s a labor intensive dish that’s usually reserved for parties. She explains the recipe to Delle McCormick, Rincon’s senior minister, who jots down ingredients and directions.
“There’s a very thin bread that we make at home,” Ruai says. Instead, she’ll substitute flour tortillas.
Faeza Hililian, originally from Iraq, makes tabbouli, a salad tingling with tart lemon and bursting with chopped mint, parsley and juicy Roma tomatoes.
After laboring for about an hour, the women sit down to enjoy a feast that includes split peas served with spongy Ethiopian injera, a type of bread, and koshary, an Egyptian dish of lentils, rice and macaroni tossed with cumin-tinged tomato sauce and topped with fried onions.
These are the dishes and with them, come the stories — about the mothers and grandmothers who taught them to cook.
“Food is powerful,” Mendenhall says. “It’s the past, present and future. Food is the one thing they can control. It’s the thing that feel they can give to the community.”